How To Find An Exercise That You Enjoy (And That Your Body Likes Too)
Expert Tips For Finding Movement You Actually Love
At my first neighborhood swim team practice, I plunged into the water with dread. My goggles fogged up as I flailed my arms and kicked, trying to push forward in a straight line like everyone else. I tried not to panic as I stopped to lift my head and gasped for air mid-lap.
When I reached the edge of the pool and emerged from the water, I realized I was the last swimmer to finish. I excused myself to go to the restroom, where I proceeded to hide for the rest of my first (and last) swim practice. I was only 12, but I avoided the sport for years afterward, remembering how embarrassed I felt. From then on, I decided swimming was not for me. Luckily though, I found another exercise I loved: running.
I started running in junior high when I joined the cross country team, and then I kept running everywhere I lived. I ran through the cornfields of my college town, along the streets in Ireland when I studied abroad, and then around my neighborhoods in New York City. Running made me feel free. It felt natural and like a sport I could do on my own, anywhere. It also gave me a way to de-stress and feel good about myself no matter what else was going on in my life. Even though I wasn’t the fastest, the thrill of running kept me coming back.
We are more likely to stick with movements that we enjoy, according to one study conducted at the Institute for Sport Science. Instructors divided participants into two groups, offering one group positive feedback, individualized instructions, and variety with their workouts in hopes of creating a more enjoyable environment. The control group, on the other hand, did not receive any exercise enhancements.
Unsurprisingly, participants in the first group who found the workouts more enjoyable attended regularly. “Experiencing more positive feelings during a training session provide[d] higher adherence to the training program,” the study notes.
Not only have I found this to be true for me, but I often hear exercise horror stories from clients now that I’m a trainer and running coach. Whether it’s a dread of weightlifting, despising HIIT classes, or an aversion to a specific exercise, everyone has exercises they do not enjoy, even on good days. Especially as some of us grew up with exercise being used as a punishment in school or on sports teams (e.g., push-ups if you’re late, or running extra laps), people may have negative associations with exercises, or feel awkward and intimidated at the gym.
But the truth is, exercise does not have to be a competition or punishment. And movement can be fun once you find the movement you love. Here’s how:
Start with walking or stretching. If you’re new to finding a movement, consider starting slow with walking and stretching. These exercises are more accessible and can work for many people (if you have limited mobility, here are some additional movement ideas). Bring along your pet or a friend; if you’re stretching, follow a YouTube video on light stretching or restorative yoga poses. You can make either of these exercises more enjoyable by listening to your favorite podcast, audiobook, or playlist.
Try new activities. Often, people will get stuck in a fitness rut doing things they’re familiar with and miss out on a whole world of other movement options. Give yourself a month to try different exercises and note the ones you love most. Many boutique fitness gyms offer trial memberships, or you can use an app like ClassPass to bounce around (it’s not only limited to gyms; you can try activities like indoor rock climbing, too). Additionally, try movement outside of “traditional exercise,” including dancing, walking, cycling, rollerskating, hiking, or aerial arts classes.
Add your own soundtrack. Create an upbeat playlist that makes you happy! You may be surprised how much enjoyment it adds to your workouts.
Mix things up. Add variety to your movement by changing up your routine. Try a new class or add in a challenge (e.g., increased speed, additional weight, longer distances). The variety will keep you mentally stimulated while also boosting your fitness level. Additionally, you may find yourself enjoying different kinds of exercises during different seasons of life. It’s okay to switch things up or fall in and out of love with certain movements.
When all is said and done, the way you stay active is entirely up to you. You do not have to join the latest workout trend, and you definitely don’t have to force yourself to do activities you hate just because people around you are doing them. Follow your own path and pursue the movements you enjoy and that feel best for your body and needs. Here’s to moving happily for years to come!
Marnie Kunz is a NASM-certified trainer and USATF- and RRCA-certified running coach and the founder of Runstreet fitness community. She enjoys running, weightlifting and going on long, slow walks with her Akita in Brooklyn, NY.